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Can NCLB Close Achievement Gaps?

by David J. Armor - August 16, 2006

In this commentary I argue that there are no demonstrable educational methods that can produce full proficiency for all students by 2014, and until there are the Department of Education should adopt a growth model that does not have a date-certain requirement to attain full proficiency for all groups.

The boldness of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is epic, and its noble goals and scope are unprecedented in American education, yet there is a good chance that it will fail in its current form, although not for the reasons offered by its many critics.   

NCLB requires states to set academic standards and design assessment and accountability systems so that, by 2014, all children will reach proficiency, regardless of race, income, or language status.  Schools must demonstrate annual progress towards the 100 percent proficiency goal (AYP), with sanctions for schools that fail to meet them, including options to choose non-failing schools.  Needless to say, NCLB has been controversial, and criticism has come from many quarters.

The most widespread criticism is the program’s lack of funding to accomplish these goals.  But that is not the crucial problem; rather, it is the lack of knowledge about how to attain proficiency for all children.  

Achievement gaps between ethnic groups are not caused by schools.  They are caused by powerful family characteristics that impact children long before they start school and continue to operate throughout their school years.  It is possible that school programs can overcome family influences to close achievement gaps, but we have yet to discover how.  A school staff cannot simply go to a shelf and find a set of classroom practices that are tested and proven.    

Anyone who doubts this can go to a Department of Education web site, the What Works Clearinghouse, which was established to advise states and school districts how to improve achievement.  The web site says that only middle school mathematics has been reviewed so far, and that 77 evaluations of various interventions were found.  However, only 10 of these evaluations meet minimum scientific standards for proof, and only two found significant improvements in math achievement.  This is hardly a formula for closing achievement gaps; indeed, it is an embarrassing admission that existing educational research does not have the answers.  

Contrast this paucity of proven teaching methods with what schools have to do to close the current gap in eighth grade math scores.  The 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress tells us that 80 percent of white students’ scores have attained “basic” proficiency, compared to only 40 percent of black students and 50 percent of Hispanic students.  

Assuming whites gain only one percent per year over the next nine years—their average for the past five years—blacks will have to gain more than five points per year, and Hispanics will have to gain more than four points per year just to close the gap by 2014; even with these gains, neither group would be at the requisite 100 percent!  This demand is simply beyond our technical ability at this time.

If further proof is needed, consider that as of January 2006, 26 percent of all schools nationwide failed to meet AYP for at least one year, and furthermore, that this amount is actually an increase of two percentage points from the previous year.  For many states, the rates are well over 40 percent.

Most educators understand the problem, but there is some reluctance to talk about it openly for fear of “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”  However, expectations are not bigoted if they are based on sound science.  The pervasive influence of family characteristics on academic achievement is well grounded in the behavioral sciences, and the difficulty of overcoming deficiencies that children bring to the schoolhouse is well documented in educational research.

The fact that there are no demonstrable interventions that will close achievement gaps by 2014 does not mean that NCLB should be abandoned.  Since research has shown that high academic standards, plus accountability, can raise achievement, having these benchmarks is clearly desirable.  The problem is that the goals of NCLB are stated as closing achievement gaps rather than improving achievement for everyone.

Rather than demanding outcomes that are unattainable at this time, the federal government should take the lead in encouraging research on how to close achievement gaps.  In the meantime, the Department of Education should modify those aspects of NCLB that require 100 percent proficiency by 2014.  Maintaining unattainable requirements can create unintended consequences, including: continued state opposition, an increase in requests for exceptions and waivers, and decisions to drop out of the program entirely.  A more serious risk is that states will lower their proficiency standards to the point that almost all students can pass without actually improving their absolute achievement levels.   There are indications that a number of states are already doing this.

The major purpose of NCLB can be preserved by making its main goal the increase of achievement for all groups, while tying sanctions to annual achievement gains or growth rather than equal proficiency.  A similar approach was being used by certain states, such as California and Texas, prior to NCLB, and is currently being advocated by Tennessee’s educators and politicians.  This approach is sometimes called a growth model.  Aside from offering attainable goals, the emphasis on improvement rather than absolute goals may improve the instructional process.  

Secretary Spellings has approved a type of growth model for two states, Tennessee and North Carolina, so they can change the way they calculate AYP.  But she has not yet changed the goal of full proficiency for all children by 2014, which is the crux of the problem.  Whether schools are judged by equal proficiency or by achievement growth, they need more time—and more research—to find the right combination of programs and practices that will ultimately close achievement gaps and allow all children to reach full proficiency.    

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 16, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12667, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:32:59 AM

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About the Author
  • David Armor
    George Mason University
    E-mail Author
    DAVID J. ARMOR is professor of public policy at George Mason University.
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